The reactions were mixed. “I don’t see that city as one for kids,” said a friend who had recently visited Venice. “You’ll be damn glad you didn’t take her before she turned nine,” said another. “They must be able to walk—and have a glimmering interest in culture.” A third person told me she took her two granddaughters, ages seven and nine, last summer: “They absolutely loved it, especially the gelato. They kept a journal of all the different flavors they spotted.” But it was my editor who put it best: “Nuala isn’t the type of kid who will sit in a gondola playing Nintendo. She’ll actually pay attention to her surroundings.”
And so began my e-mail correspondence with Emily FitzRoy, whose company, Bellini Travel, is known for its bespoke Venetian itineraries (see “Top Venice Travel Specialists”). I explained how my nine-year-old daughter, Nuala, is well-traveled (already on her second passport), prefers to eat only Italian (especially ravioli), loves to help me cook (doesn’t miss an episode of Top Chef) and is a huge fan of theater (has seen five Broadway shows). FitzRoy wasted no time suggesting a trip that included more than just museums and paper shops: “I’ve written to the owner of the best glass factory on Murano (in fact, the only one in private hands) to arrange a visit and am waiting to hear back from a lady who does fabulous cooking classes from her palazzo on the Zattere (we’ll make sure ravioli is on the menu).”
It was also recommended that we stay in an apartment, which, I was told, was not only key to Nuala’s overall experience but also much more affordable, as adjoining hotel suites can be astronomically expensive in this city. Here, too, FitzRoy’s expertise was unbeatable. She works with an upscale rental agency called Views on Venice (viewsonvenice.com). Its website gives a good sense of what’s available, but it is FitzRoy’s suggestions and explanations that really help.
“That apartment you’re considering is incredibly chic and bijoux,” she wrote, “but not the most child-friendly. For example, the second bedroom has a shower in the room that looks fabulous but could end in tears!” It was also on Giudecca, not the most convenient spot. “As it is your family’s first time in Venice,” she said, “I think you will enjoy being in the thick of it, so to speak.” She confirmed us for the top-floor apartment at Palazzo Loredan, a 15th-century Gothic palace on the Grand Canal whose owner, Filippo Gaggia, lives on the grounds.
The three-bedroom penthouse had aerial views of the red rooftops, church domes and bell towers, plus the lagoon beyond. “It’s in one of the most enchanting areas of the city, Dorsoduro,” said FitzRoy, “which is very much a young community where artisans still work.”
It couldn’t have been more perfect. The apartment had all the modern amenities, with a fully equipped eat-in kitchen and four renovated bathrooms (though the towels and sheets were basic low thread counts). It was decorated with an eclectic mix of antiques, wood, velvet, chrome and glass. Nuala’s room had twin beds, two large armoires and a sweet writing desk. The place had such charm, she didn’t mind the absence of hotel room service and movies on demand. She got excited for a moment when she saw the flat-screen television with a DVD player in the living room but shrugged when she realized the movies were all in Italian. No matter, we spent most of our time enjoying the two large terraces—one off the living room, the other off the master bedroom.
Behind the palazzo was a square with a mini-market where we stocked up on groceries. Locals hung out at cafés, children played soccer and tag, students from the nearby Accademia gathered at the bars. We acclimated to the lifestyle quickly, waving hello each time we passed the sleeping dog in the neighbor’s courtyard. After only a day Nuala proclaimed Venice one of her favorite cities, saying she felt at home.%new_page%
Our cooking class with Enrica Rocca turned out to be the highlight of our trip. It even surpassed seeing the torture chambers on the secret tour of Doge’s Palace, blowing glass on the private tour of Archimede Seguso’s Murano factory, playing in Napoléon’s gardens near the Arsenale and experiencing acqua alta one night as we walked home from dinner, Nuala splashing around in rubber boots as the water rose higher and higher.
Being invited into homes for cooking lessons has become a growing trend in Italy, as the Financial Times recently reported. But Rocca, whose Venetian family roots date back more than two centuries, has been holding her unique classes for 17 years. We met at 9 a.m. in the Rialto market, where Rocca regaled us with the history of food as we toured the stalls searching for the freshest ingredients that would inspire our menu.
“Cooking isn’t about recipes,” she said. “It’s about creativity. If you put good things in a pot, you’ll get good things out of it.” We ended up making potato gnocchi (instead of ravioli) with a pomodoro sauce; meatballs with artichokes and baby onions; grilled radicchio; and pork ribs sautéed with garlic. It was the best meal we had in Venice—and one that Nuala still talks about months after our visit.
A week at Palazzo Loredan starts at about $5,300, and it can be booked through viewsonvenice.com, along with lower-priced apartments. Tours of the Archimede Seguso glass factory are by appointment only (39-041/739-048), and Enrica Rocca’s all-day Rialto Market Cooking Experience is about $370 per person (enricarocca.com).